Weighing in on El Niño

A retired captain from the LA County Fire Department revisits his experiences with El Niño and how we can prepare.

El Niño is Spanish for “little boy,” but this prolonged warming in the Pacific is far from a small tyke creating havoc. Some parts of the globe suffer extreme drought, while others receive abnormally heavy rainfall. Warmer water causes fish to migrate to cooler waters and whales to show up in weird places. In short, entire ecosystems are disturbed.

As a 30-year first responder for Los Angeles County Fire Department, I’ve witnessed first hand huge swells pound our coastline. While surfers love big swells that deliver good surf, beach-side residents experience heartache and risk severe damage to their homes caused by the erosion and flooding.

During the1997-98 El Niño conditions, extremely heavy rainfall saturated our soil in Southern California and caused landslides along the entire West Coast, creating life-threatening situations for homeowners and first responders.


Provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This 2015-16 El Niño has already produced significant global impacts, and it’s expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the United States during the upcoming months. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Climate Predication Center both agree El Niño is here, and satellite images show sea temperatures are still supporting the El Niño Forecasts. FEMA encourages, “If you haven’t bought flood insurance, it may be a good investment, in areas where extreme rainfalls are predicted.”


Huge surf captured in Redondo Beach, California in 1983.

In addition to warm water, the warm air out over the Pacific comes with uncharacteristic migratory patterns, and the impending El Niño has also spawned hurricanes on the East Coast while South Carolina was inundated with record rainfall and 15 fatalities.

The 1983 El Niño was one I remember well. I was an 18-year-old collegiate swimmer who was fearless in the ocean. Early fall, I was surfing the Redondo Beach break water at low tide, with heavy surf advisory in effect. The surf was about 10’-12’ faces and supposed to be on the rise. The sun was setting, and I was waiting for one last wave. In an instant, I found myself paddling for the horizon to a darkening sky due to a set of huge waves marching in. I couldn’t believe it. These waves were feathering so far out I knew I was going to be caught on the inside and steam rolled. I paddled like my life depended on it – because it did- and I was lucky to make it to shore after that beating. 

Let’s be prepared: have a safety plan and an emergency exit. If you’re instructed to evacuate, don’t hesitate. Last, check out some high-level guidance for high-water events below, and if you’re a TR member, ensure you’re deployment ready so we can bring calm to chaos should this “little boy” throw a tantrum near you.

KB30-Come Hell or High Water


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